The locals are complaining as if Germany were becoming the Sahara. For an Italian, it is not that bad. At night you can sleep even with your clothes on. This is not hot, guys. Spend a couple of nights in Milan now – you can’t sleep, you can’t eat. I kind of missed a proper summer feeling when I lived in Wales, when they start to talk about ‘coping with the heat wave’ when the temperature reaches 24 degrees. It is still actually quite warm though, and since my kitchen is exposed to the sun especially at evening, I don’t feel like spending a lot of time there. So dinner is mainly salads, hummus, cold dishes, like the big Italian summer classics: prosciutto e melone, pomodoro e mozzarella. Nicer since here I can find proper Italian ingredients.
This recipe is quintessential summer cooking for me. You have to boil a pan of water – you are cooking pasta after all, but that is as far as it goes with cooking. Ready by the time it takes for the pasta to cook, and you don’t even have to stay close to the boiling pot. My family has always prepared pesto like this. We grew basil leaves from our ‘garden’ – two pots in our small balcony, on the shady side, because it would dry in the sun. We’d make a lot of pesto and the freeze it for subsequent use (there is a trick for this to work: don’t add any cheese before freezing, and it will keep much better).
The success for pesto is only one: good ingredients. Every year we’d bet on choosing the right type of basil, with small leaves. There is not much more needed. But people’s fantasy gets carried away with this sauce. You’d be amazed at how wrong things can go with it. Most commercial varieties are prepared with cheap ingredients and result in a greasy green garlicky mess. But also the home-made variety is dangerous. I’ve seen people cooking the poor basil before whizzing it, possibly with parsley. I’ve seen people thinning it with cream instead of water. The poor thing. And the evildoers were all Italian! I cannot even imagine what they’d do with it abroad.
In Italy the debate around pesto can reach the highest food nerd levels. I have heard people claiming that the real thing is just the one done with the basil from one side of that hill in Genova, the other side not having a nice enough quality. The funny thing is that they are right. Ingredients must be the best you can find, and finding the right variety of basil is already a nightmare in Italy, let alone abroad! However you will get a decent result also with other more minty varieties than the small-leaved genovese one. At any rate, there is no going around it, real pesto must be expensive, because it must be prepared with best quality extra virgin olive oil, best quality fresh basil, a lot of it, and pine nuts (possibly from Italy, as I have heard that chinese ones can give you bad surprises); some people add a little parmesan, others a little grated pecorino, but both must be top quality; also the addition of a very small amount of garlic is allegedly allowed.
Then the pasta: traditional format is trofie, quick one is trenette, a thinner variety of linguine. If you can’t find them, linguine are ok as well. You can add summer vegetables to the pasta to allow for a more complete dish. I have always seen it done only with two vegetables: potatoes and green beans. I am not sure whether I’d risk changing them.
So here is the recipe, as good as you can get it two thousand kilometers from the right basil variety, and no possibility of growing it in a pot.
The traditional method involves crushing everything in a mortar to avoid heating the sauce, but my mortar is far too small for it, and anyway it is way too hot for any form of physical activity outside water. If you have a big mortar and are so inclined, however, do give it a try. It is a bit of extra work, but it is worth it.
You can save the pesto for a few days by covering it with a thin layer of oil and keeping in the fridge.
Pasta con il pesto
Ingredients (Serves 3)
leaves from three small bunches of basil, possibly genovese variety (small leaves, dark green color, no hint of mint or grass in the smell)
1/3 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoon pine nuts
1/2 garlic clove, or to taste (not much more)
2 tablespoon best quality olive oil
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon each best quality grated parmesan and pecorino, or adjust proportions to taste
300 gr linguine
200 gr green beans, top and tail removed
1 floury potato, peeled and cut into 1 cm dice
Heat a large pot full of water for cooking the pasta. Add the vegetables to the cold water; as soon as this is boiling, add the pasta.They will all be ready when the pasta is al dente. If you know you can’t watch over the liquid, to avoid overcooking the vegetables just add them 3 mins before adding the pasta to the already boiling water.
Prepare the pesto: fill a large bowl with water and ice. Put in a container where you can use a hand blender the washed and spin dried basil leaves together with the rest of the ingredients, apart from the cheese. Immerse it in the water and ice container and whizz it briefly with a hand blender making sure you don’t overheat the mixture. When you have a coarse but regular consistency, taste it for adding more garlic or salt; add the grated cheeses, and thin the sauce with a ladleful of the pasta’s cooking water. If keeping, don’t thin the sauce: transfer in a jar and cover with a layer of oil. You can use it in many ways, a traditional summer one is for dressing cold soups.
Drain the pasta al dente. Toss it with the pesto and serve immediately.